TIME vaccines

Watch a Science Cop Take on the Anti-Vaccine Movement

"Again, and always, they're wrong."

Nothing gets the anti-vaccine fringe going quite so much as believing they’ve found a scandal—some bit of gotcha’ proof that the global medical establishment really, truly is covering up a terrible secret about the dangers of vaccines.

Recently, this always-vocal but rarely-rational crowd announced that they had what they were looking for, with the discovery that a comparatively old study had excluded some data suggesting that African-American children who had been vaccinated were slightly likelier than other kids to have developed autism.

But again—and always—the anti-vaxxers were wrong, misunderstanding the science, misrepresenting the findings, and recruiting the worst possible person imaginable to argue their wrong-headed case.

TIME Developmental Disorders

How Brain Waves May Be the Clue to Diagnosing Autism

Unique EEG fingerprints reveal how autistic brains process sights and sounds

Diagnosing autism as early as possible, even before the first noticeable symptoms of social and developmental delays emerge, is becoming a critical strategy for reducing the condition’s most severe symptoms. Experts have long known that children with autism process sensory information – sights and sounds in particular – in different ways than unaffected children.

In a new study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Sophie Molholm, from the departments of pediatric and neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, proposes that those differences may lay the foundation for social and communication deficits in some children later on.

Molholm and her team took electroencephalogram (EEG) readings from more than 40 children aged six years to 17 years diagnosed with autism and compared their patterns to those of unaffected children of similar age and other characteristics. All children were given either a flash cue, a beep cue or a combination of both, and asked to press a button when these stimuli occurred. A cap with 70 sensors picked up the children’s brain responses every two milliseconds during these tasks, including those that recorded how the brain first processed the sensory information.

MORE: Behavior Therapy Normalizes Brains of Autistic Children

The children with autism showed a distinctly different brain wave signature from those without the condition. Specifically, the signals in those with autism showed differences in the speed in which the sights or sounds were processed, and in how the sensory neurons recruited neighbors in more far-flung areas of the brain to register and make sense of the information. And the more abnormal this multi-processing was, the more severe the child’s autistic symptoms. “By developing this tool in the older cohort of children we can then figure out which ones are the most promising and then go test them in younger children,” says Molholm.

It’s also possible that because the children she studied were older, the differences in their EEG patterns were the result of autism, rather than a sign of changes that precede the disorder. But, she says, “If you ask me to make an educated guess, I would say these are part of autism, and they represent neuropathology related to having the disorder. It seems unlikely to me that you get autism and then develop atypical auditory processing.”

MORE: Autism Symptoms Disappeared With Behavioral Therapy In Babies

Molholm says the sample was too small to use the profile for diagnosing autism, but it could lead to such a test if the results are confirmed and repeated. To confirm the findings, scientists will have to intervene with behavioral strategies for helping the different regions of the brain work in a more coordinated way when confronted with visual and auditory cues. If that reduces autism symptoms, then EEG profiling could become one of a number of new ways that doctors can start identifying those at highest risk – however young — of developing autism.

TIME Developmental Disorders

Autism Symptoms Disappeared With Behavioral Therapy In Babies

Baby on fur rug
Getty Images

Parents using ground-breaking new techniques with infants essentially cured their babies of developmental delays

For the first time, researchers report that treating early signs of autism in infants as young as 6 months can essentially help them to avoid developmental delays typical of the disorder. And the intervention doesn’t involve pills or invasive surgery but an intensive behavioral therapy provided by the babies’ parents, according to the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Kristin Hinson was one of those parents. She knew what autism looked like. With two of her three children showing developmental delays, she was on the lookout for similar signals when her son Noah was born. And at 6 months, they came. Noah began avoiding eye contact with her and other family members, his muscle tone was low, and he started lagging in the early infant milestones like rolling over and responding to sounds and people. “He was doing everything, but everything was a little sloppy,” says Hinson.

Because she had two children affected by autism, Noah was enrolled in a study of infant siblings of autistic children at the University of California Davis. Noah’s symptoms appeared relatively early — at that age, doctors can’t diagnose the developmental disorder, but they know the hallmarks that are strongly associated with it. Noah’s sibling history also meant there was a good chance he would eventually show delays in language and social skills as well.

MORE: Brain Imaging Could Detect Autism Risk in Infants as Young as 6 Months

He was fortunate enough, however, to be one of seven children to begin an intensive, parent-based program for treating autism in infants as young as 6 months. The goal of the program is to slow or avoid the symptoms of autism that often mean affected children need special education or other formal care as they get older.

Hinson attended 12 sessions for an hour once a week at the Institute, and continued to apply what she had learned there during each of her interactions with Noah at home for six weeks while following up with their counselor. The techniques she and the other parents learned were based on the Early Start Denver Model, which was developed by Sally Rogers, a professor of psychiatry at UC Davis, and Dr. Geraldine Dawson at Duke University.

The program involved intensive and intentional play by trained therapists at children’s homes. Once a week, the therapists went to the families’ homes and purposefully engaged with the toddlers, who were between three years and five years old. Even when they were rebuffed, the therapists would persist, finding objects that appealed to the children and inserting themselves into the child’s play with that object so they were forced to have more social engagement. Eventually, the children responded, and even showed brain changes that suggested their brain patterns were normalizing to look more like those of children unaffected by autism.

With the latest group, Rogers moved the program earlier, to babies between 6 months and 15 months old, well before autism is usually diagnosed. Because the babies were so young, Rogers wanted to test whether parents could be taught the same techniques that therapists used, so the strategy could be applied more consistently and frequently than a few times a week, and during daily interactions with the infants—while they were fed, diapered, bathed and more.

MORE: Study: Siblings of Autistic Kids Show Similar Brain Activity

The results were astounding. Six of the seven infants in the study essentially caught up in their learning and language skills by age two or three. They no longer showed developmental delays in social communication or language, and behaved just as a control group of children unaffected by the disorder.

“At 18 months, Noah just blossomed,” says Hinson. “He started talking, and really socializing. Before, he wasn’t really engaging with others, and all of a sudden it felt like a light flipped on.”

Noah is attending a mainstream preschool, and Hinson doesn’t anticipate he will need any special education or tutoring to keep up with his classmates once he enters kindergarten,

Doctors, especially psychiatrists, don’t like to use the word “cure.” But, says Rogers of the small, promising group of infants like Noah who were part of the study, “We are curing their developmental delays.”

MORE: Behavior Therapy Normalizes Brains of Autistic Children

She’s careful not to suggest that the behavioral therapy can cure children of autism, since the only a handful of babies were involved, and they haven’t been studied long-term yet. But the findings do support the idea that intervening early, and with intensive therapy, can make a difference in the trajectory of the disorder.

The results also suggest that the progression of autism isn’t inevitable, and that its symptoms aren’t entirely biologically or genetically preordained. “If a baby doesn’t smile at you, doesn’t make eye contact, doesn’t respond pleasurably to your many interactions or doesn’t ever call for your attention, you don’t know if you’re on the right track,” she says of the typical early signs of autism. “If the message you get from them is that they aren’t interested, then you’re not going to continue.” Over, time, she says, that limits the number of social learning opportunities that the babies have, and they may spiral deeper and deeper into their own world. “Over time, the parents and children accommodate the child’s interest in objects and lack of interest in people.”

The behavioral training that she provides parents counters this cycle, and forces parents to find ways to engage their child, even if it means using the inanimate objects that appeal to them. If an infant is captivated by a stuffed animal, for example, then parents are trained to enter their baby’s field of vision, and play with the animal by using it to tickle the child, or tickle himself. The parent might even hide the stuffed toy under her shirt, and encourage the baby to find it. “The parent takes over so the child is now interested in the parent because there is a game going on with the toy and the parent,” says Rogers. “The key is to create a social game so the object is now serving the people instead of taking over the child’s attention.”

That shift takes effort, however, and it isn’t easy. “The first month I felt really frustrated,” admits Hinson. “There was a lot of pressure on me.” She says that it took most of the 12 week program before she felt completely comfortable with the new way of interacting with Noah, with inserting herself into his “circle” of attention at every opportunity, and with waiting for him to respond to her forays at communication.

But, she says, it was well worth the effort, and it comes easily. “Every new skill, like teaching him nursery rhymes and songs, or trying to get him to share something, and show me something, didn’t come natural to me at first. But when he started giving me some reciprocation, like smiling and babbling, it was like I was getting rewarded for the hard work.”

The skills are “completely doable,” says Hinson, and far less intrusive than having therapists visit the home once a week, which she did for her two older children who were developmentally delayed. “It’s brilliant if you can get the hands-on training. Because as parents, we are in their circle all the time, every day of their lives, and what better way to help them than to do it every day at every opportunity.”

While she’ll never know if the program was actually responsible for helping Noah to avoid developmental delays, Hinson is sure of one thing. “If they could have had something like this for my other children, I think they would be completely different children today.”

 

TIME Research

Journal Retracts Paper that Questioned CDC Autism Study

A paper that claimed government scientists covered up data showing a connection between vaccines and autism has been pulled by its publisher

Earlier in August, the journal Translational Neurodegeneration, an open access, peer-reviewed journal, published a re-analysis of a 2004 paper published in Pediatrics that looked at MMR vaccines and autism. The re-analysis of the data, by biochemical engineer Brian Hooker of Simpson University, claimed to find a higher rate of vaccination against MMR among a subset — African-American boys — of the original study population who developed autism than among those who did not, a finding that Hooker claims was suppressed by the authors of the original paper from the Centers of Disease Control. One of the co-authors of the 2004 paper, William Thompson, released a statement admitting to omitting the data after a secretly recorded conversation he had with Hooker was released on YouTube. (Thompson was not available for comment.)

MORE: Whistleblower Claims CDC Covered Up Data Showing Vaccine-Autism Link

Now, however, the editors of Translational Neurodegeneration have retracted Hooker’s paper, noting on its site that “This article has been removed from the public domain because of serious concerns about the validity of its conclusions. The journal and publisher believe that its continued availability may not be in the public interest. Definitive editorial action will be pending further investigation.”

TIME medicine

Whistleblower Claims CDC Covered Up Data Showing Vaccine-Autism Link

The claim, however, may just be more unsubstantiated fuel from the anti-vaccination movement

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a war going on between those who believe in the health benefits of vaccines – that they can prevent deadly infectious diseases such as measles and polio – and those that believe that the immunizations do more harm than good. Now one of the authors of a 2004 government study that found similar vaccination rates among children with and without autism says the study omitted some important data.

The vaccine war is being fought on social media, in social circles and increasingly in doctor’s offices, as physicians are faced with doubts and questions from parents who find themselves being recruited onto the side of skepticism. Skepticism is healthy, and the sign of curious minds, but not when it flies in the face of evidence. Especially gold standard, rigorous scientific evidence that has been accumulating for decades and shows that vaccines are not linked with an increased risk of the developmental disorder.

William Thompson, a senior scientist at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and one of the authors of a 2004 study published in the journal Pediatrics, spoke with Brain Hooker, who serves on the board of Focus Autism (which was founded to “put an end to the needless harm of children by vaccination and other environmental factors”), about the data that was not included in the final report. The study looked at both healthy children and those with autism, to see if there were any differences in their rates of being vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), and found none. That suggested that childhood immunizations likely were not contributing to an increased risk of autism. Hooker and Thompson, however, discussed a subset of the 624 children with autism and 1824 without the condition who were studied and Thompson admitted that among African-American boys, the incidence of autism was higher among those who were vaccinated than among those who weren’t. But that information was not part of the paper. Thompson claims he was not aware that the discussion was being recorded, and his statements appeared in a video released on YouTube on August 22 entitled “CDC Whistleblower Revealed.”

Did the CDC cover up the data, as Hooker claims? A couple of things to keep in mind, both about the people behind the video and about how epidemiological studies like the one published in Pediatrics work (and explained in more detail in this article from Science-Based Medicine). For starters, the video was narrated by Andrew Wakefield, the British researcher responsible for seeding the questions about vaccines and autism in the first place. In 2010, the General Medical Council in the UK revoked his license to practice medicine and a year later, the journal that published his paper concluded that his findings were fraudulent.

Next, any time scientists take the original population of participants in a study, however large, and drill down to analyze trends in a subgroup – in this case the African-American boys – the power of the associations they find dwindles. That’s because the numbers get smaller, and in order to be statistically relevant – something known as statistical significance to statisticians – certain threshold numbers and confidence intervals for the connection have to be reached. In the 2004 study, the scientists looked at a smaller set of 355 children with autism and 1020 without for whom they had Georgia state birth certificates, which included additional information that might be relevant for any associations, such as birth weight, gestational age, and mother’s age, race and education. “This information was not available for the children without birth certificates; hence the CDC study did not present data by race on black, white or other race children form the whole study sample. It presented the results on black and white/other race children from the group with birth certificates,” the CDC notes in a statement responding to the video. Thompson claims that the findings were statistically significant, but results from smaller numbers of subjects still don’t hold as much weight as correlations found in the larger group.

In addition, it’s important to note that the study simply correlated age at vaccination and reports of autism, which says nothing about the direction of the connection. For example, the authors of the 2004 study note that “Case children, especially those 3 to 5 years of age, were more likely than control children to have been vaccinated before 36 months of age.” The association between vaccination and symptoms, however, was more likely due to the fact that the children had to be immunized in order to register in preschool, and doesn’t necessarily indicate that the shots contributed to the autism.

In a statement issued through his attorneys, Thompson says “Reasonable scientists can and do differ in their interpretation of information.” He calls for transparency in the data collecting and reporting process, but says that the way that the 2004 study was presented does not negate the importance of vaccination. “I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.”

TIME celebrity

Justin Timberlake Leads an Entire Stadium in Singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to an 8-Year-Old

The boy, who's autistic, says Timberlake is his favorite singer

JT superfan Julian Delian got to celebrate his eighth birthday by going to see his favorite artist perform in San Jose, Calif. Sporting a Timberlake-style fedora and bow tie, the boy was naturally very excited, and began yelling about his birthday and how excited he was to spend it at the concert.

Julian’s autistic, and his mother, Marika Rosenthal Delan, was worried that his chanting might annoy the people around them, People reports. Instead, they all banded together to try and get the singer’s attention — and it worked. They told him Julian was turning eight, to which he replied “Sorry about the profanity, Mom.”

He then urged the entire crowd to join him in serenading Julian, and go ahead and try and watch the video above with crying.

Oh, and here he is, totally pulling off that fedora:

 

TIME vaccines

Childhood Vaccines Are Safe, Says Pediatrics Group

The latest in-depth review of immunizations shows that they aren’t linked to higher risk of autism or cancer

It’s been three years since the Institute of Medicine (IOM) came out with its comprehensive look at vaccine safety. That’s enough time to generate dozens more studies investigating side effects and risk of conditions such as autism and cancer that keep some parents from vaccinating their children against potentially lethal diseases like mumps, measles and pertussis.

Since 2011, when the IOM issued its report, 67 new studies that included proper follow up periods and control groups have emerged. So the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality requested an updated review of the data on vaccine safety, this time including data on previously unstudied immunizations against pneumococcus, rotavirus, Hib and inactivated polio virus vaccines in addition to the well-studied ones.

MORE: How Safe Are Vaccines?

Overall, the researchers, led by Margaret Maglione at the RAND Corporation, report in the journal Pediatrics that most of the childhood immunizations are safe, with only a few associated with rare adverse effects. The group found that the MMR vaccine, which some parents believe raise the risk of autism, does not increase the risk of the developmental disorder. They did find moderate evidence that rotavirus vaccination can cause twisting of the bowels in a small number of children, but the condition can be treated.

“We need to keep doing this,” says Dr. Carol Baker, executive director of the center for vaccine awareness and research at Texas Children’s Hospital, of the study updates. “We can’t just sit still and rest on prior information.”

MORE: 4 Diseases Making a Comeback Thanks to Anti-Vaxxers

Increasingly, she says, pediatricians are spending more time discussing vaccines and vaccine safety with confused or hesitant parents. That’s a different scenario from the days of the polio epidemic, when parents were lining their children up to get them vaccinated against the paralyzing disease. “The major reason the safety of vaccines has become more of an issue recently is that many of the diseases they prevent have pretty much disappeared,” says Baker, who also served as chair of the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which makes recommendations about which vaccines children should get, and when. “So this is a very needed report.”

It’s especially helpful as more parents are either skeptical about vaccines, and need reassurance that getting their children is the safe, and responsible thing to do, or are adamantly convinced that vaccines do more harm than good. Many pediatricians have alerted their patients that they won’t see children whose parents won’t get them vaccinated since they could pose a risk of passing on disease to their other patients, including infants under six months old who can’t get vaccinated because their immune systems are still too undeveloped to respond properly to the shots, and children whose immune systems are compromised because of cancer or other conditions. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t advise that its members refuse patients, but some pediatricians believe it’s the only way to protect the children they see. “Pediatricians have to have a conversation about risks and benefits of vaccines,” says Baker. “So we need to keep looking at the studies and the data. Vaccines are good, and disease is bad, and the risk-benefit ratio is favorable for all vaccines. This new study gives reassurance that that’s true.”

TIME Infectious Disease

Study: Measles, Mumps and Rubella Vaccines Not Associated With Autism

Although vaccines have eliminated many communicable diseases, some parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children in recent years

A new study on childhood vaccines determined that immunizations do not lead to autism — a finding that researchers hope will dissipate fears propagated by antivaccine campaigners such as Hollywood stars Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey.

Researchers in the study referenced 67 scientific papers, which were chosen for their control and comparison groups and relevance, to expose the low-risk factors of vaccinations.

“Without this work there would be a lack of transparency around this issue, so by doing this important research in a thorough and systematic way, we acknowledge that there are rare but actual side effects,” said co-author Margaret Maglione, a policy analyst at RAND Corp.

The study published in the peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics concluded there is no link between vaccines and leukemia or food allergies. Vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) were found to occasionally have the severe side effects of fever or seizures; although, crucially, the report concludes that the “MMR vaccine is not associated with autism.”

Although vaccines have eliminated many communicable diseases, some parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children in recent years. A 2010 study showed that California had the highest cases of whooping cough since 1947. Researchers did not directly study the effects of vaccine opt-out, but found that a cluster of unvaccinated children played a role in the epidemic.

Researchers in the Pediatrics study hoped parents would be convinced by the effectiveness of vaccines, which they wrote represent “one of the greatest public-health achievements of the 20th century for their role in eradicating smallpox and controlling polio, measles, rubella and other infectious diseases in the United States.”

Study co-author Courtney Gidengil, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School, told AFP that while some parents may still be reluctant, the research should “increase some trust in the vaccine process and the trust between parents and their health care provider.”

 

MONEY health

Raising an Autistic Child: Coping With the Costs

A new study pegs the lifetime cost of caring for a child with autism at $1.4 million. For parents, there are no easy solutions.

When Linda Mercier’s son Sam was around two years old, she knew something wasn’t right.

Sam was becoming withdrawn, not speaking or playing with other kids, and focused on specific tasks like lining up his toys. Eventually the mystery was solved: He was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD.

That was the beginning of a very long road, one that has involved significant time, effort — and money, plenty of it. Hundreds of thousands of dollars so far, Mercier estimates, on tutors, therapists and lost wages.

The good news: Same is now high-functioning, and in many respects a completely normal 13-year-old. The downside: The price tag to get to this point has been massive.

“Only a parent of a child with special needs can ever understand the struggles, and the financial commitment, of raising and recovering an autistic child,” says Mercier, a business owner from Winnipeg, Canada. “It’s an endless battle — and an expensive one.”

Indeed: A new study in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics has pegged the total lifetime cost of supporting an individual with an ASD at an astonishing $1.4 million in the United States. If there is also intellectual disability, the total rises even more, to $2.4 million.

RELATED: Paying for My Special-Needs Child

Such costs typically include an ongoing mix of special education programs, medical care and lost wages. After all, many parents of autistic children reduce their work hours, or even quit their jobs altogether, to help their child full-time.

The study is the most recent to tabulate just how crushing these figures really are.

“I can believe it,” says Mercier, when told of the million-dollar-plus price tag. “Easy.”

Even the study’s lead author admits to being taken aback by the final number.

“I was really surprised,” said Dr. David Mandell, director of the Center for Mental Health Policy and Services Research at the University of Pennsylvania. “The old estimates were from 8 or 9 years ago, and at first I was skeptical they needed updating.”

New studies are providing more current cost estimates. “What we found was shocking,” Mandell said. “This is a huge hit on families.”

Journalist Ron Suskind knows about that financial hit first-hand. His son Owen, now 23, was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum about 20 years ago, a journey Suskind has recounted in the book “Life, Animated.”

Owen has made remarkable strides, thanks to what Suskind calls “affinity therapy,” or tailoring treatment depending on the child’s particular way of understanding the world.

In Owen’s case, his preferred frame of reference is Disney movies. Using that template, Suskind and his wife got to work unlocking Owen’s full potential. But it did not come cheaply.

The organization Autism Speaks estimates that it takes around $60,000 a year to support someone with an ASD, Suskind says, adding that treatment for Owen cost about $90,000 a year.

“When we first got the diagnosis, the doctor asked me what I did for a living, and I said ‘newspaper reporter.’ He said, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that. You know, private equity is a nice way to go.'”

MOVING FOR SERVICES

The costs are so prohibitive that many affected families actually pick up and move to states that offer a superior array of therapeutic services. Suskind calls it a “Grapes of Wrath”-style migration, of families ultimately headed for locales like New York or Massachusetts. (To choose the right place for your family, check out Autism Speaks’ state-by-state resource guide.)

There is also a measure before Congress that aims to mitigate the financial burden for families: So-called ABLE accounts would be patterned after 529 college-savings plans, but specifically geared toward those with disabilities. The tax-advantaged savings could be put toward expenses like education, housing, therapy and rehab.

RELATED: Paying for My Special-Needs Child

One piece of advice from Mandell: Don’t automatically think that you have to drop out of the workforce in order to manage your child’s case full-time.

It’s the natural human instinct to want to do so, of course. No one knows your child and his or her needs like you do, and navigating multiple layers of city, state and federal services can indeed be a full-time job.

But when one parent drops out of the workforce, just as out-of-pocket expenses start to mount up, “it can become very financially difficult,” Mandell says.

He urges families to take a long-term view of caregiving. “In some cases it might be better for the mother to stay in the workforce, and then hire additional support to provide case-management services,” he says.

For Linda Mercier, the towering costs hit her family budget every single day. It meant cutting back wherever possible, taking second jobs and foregoing trips to visit family. All well worth it, of course, since Sam has been such an inspiring success story.

But there’s no question that raising a child with an ASD is a sobering financial reality.

“I would tell other parents of special-needs children that there is hope,” says Mercier. “It can get a lot better, and it does. But it takes a whole lot of money to get there.”

RELATED: Paying for My Special-Needs Child

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